A freezing February morning down by the riverside is hardly the best time for a paddle. Unless, of course, you are one of Britain's brightest young canoeing prospects dipping your toe into the mainstream of potential international stardom. Most days, come hail or high water, will find the 18-year-old Louisa Sawers trying to avoid making too many waves as she pushes herself through hours of rigorous training in pursuit of eventual Olympic glory.
Canoeing and kayaking are aquatic pursuits, like rowing, sailing and water skiing, in which Brits have a formidable track record (around 40 medals at world level in the past 20 years). Sawers has contributed to that total as the current world junior marathon champion in the K1 singles and, with Jess Walker, the K2 doubles, and had a top-10 finish in the 1,000m sprint at the world senior championships, finishing 12th in the 500m. She also returned from the Australian Youth Olympic Festival with a sprint silver medal.
She is fortunate that she belongs to Elmbridge Canoe Club in Surrey, which nestles on the Thames towpath between Weybridge and Walton, and is the most prolific in the land at producing champions, notably in the marathon, which like the road-running counterpart is raced over 26 miles but has the added piquancy of having to leave the water at four points to carry the canoe some 1,200m.
It is also fortuitous that Sawers has as a clubmate, and one of her best mates, a sporting icon in the 30-year-old Anna Hemmings who, had she been in a mainstream rather than a slipstream sport, would be as much of a household name as Paula Radcliffe. It is one of the curious anomalies of Lottery funding which is required to follow the Government edict of "no compromise" that, unlike the tax exile Radcliffe, one of Britain's supreme sportswomen - five times a world champion - does not get a penny, as her marathon speciality is not an Olympic discipline. But that is another story.
For the moment, Hemmings is happy to pursue her own long-distance ambitions while helping to nurture the blossoming career of a young friend who began canoeing as a 10-year-old when she "tagged along" with her elder brother John - now 20 and in the national under-23 squad - to the Elmbridge club.
Says Hemmings: "It is really only in the last couple of years that I've got to know Louisa well. At the time she was emerging I was out of the sport because of illness [she suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome]. One of the first things I noticed about her is that she has a good technique, and with that you can go far, because you are so much more efficient. She struck me as being very focused and determined. Once she is out on the water she never gives up, even in training, she fights all the time.
"She is definitely an Olympic prospect in 2012 because she has the physique for sprint racing. One of the things I have told her is that to become a champion consumes your life. It's about choice. Choosing to go training every day, even when it's bitterly cold and you don't feel like it, and not going out the night before. It means getting up at dawn, eating the right foods and being disciplined in every area of your life. There are so many components, which people never see. It's about pushing the limits in training, getting out of the comfort zone, being prepared to go through the pain barrier every day in every training session."
Hemmings adds: "At the mom-ent I see Louisa more as a possible partner than a rival - perhaps one day she will be, though I would like to think she would never beat me in the marathon!" But in the sprints? "Yes, quite possibly she could. But who knows? I may even be there myself in 2012, particularly if by then the marathon is included."
Next week Hemmings and Sawers will be training together in Seville. "We get on really well, which is great, even though she is much younger than me. I have a sister who is nine years younger and we are best friends. In sport ages are no longer a barrier. We have a common interest and Louisa is quite mature. She is a bubbly, fun girl to be around. We enjoy all the girlie things like music and clothes, so there's lots to chat about."
Sawers says she has never really been interested in any sport except canoeing. "I found I took to the water quite naturally and really enjoyed it." By the time she was 14 she was taking part in the national marathon championships before turning to sprint racing, the Olympic discipline which qualifies her for Lottery funding. "At that time my real enjoyment was winning these little club races and rushing home to tell my mum and dad."
She became the national marathon junior champion and then claimed the world gold medal at the Under-18 level. "Although I never raced competitively against Anna in the marathon - she was always at senior level - she gave me great advice and encouragement, and I have been lucky to have her around." They are not only clubmates but near neighbours in Walton-on-Thames, where Sawers lives with her parents and works part-time with autistic children, having completed a BTEC in health studies.
Her coach, Steve Harris, an ex-Army man who was a cross-country skier, athlete and boxer before becoming a canoeing world champion in 1994, partnering another Elmbridge legend, Ivan Lawler, says: You can see when a youngster first joins the club whether or not they are going to be any good from their mental attitude. It was clear with Louisa from very early on that she was very determined and had that mental strength which can make all the difference on the day.
"Louisa will be concentrating on the sprints between now and Beijing. In my mind there is a very realistic prospect she can qualify. As for 2012, well, as long as she continues to develop, she can be at least a medallist, but the real Olympic objective has to be 2016. By then she could be so good, she could be the world number one. However, things change, and if she gets ahead of the plan she could do it by 2012."
The importance of canoeing, with its bewildering array of disciplines, as an Olympic sport is that there are 16 gold medals on offer, and a few of those would certainly boost British hopes of achieving fourth place in the 2012 table. Britain has never won an Olympic canoeing gold, but Harris reckons this could change in Beijing with another Elmbridge club member, Tim Brabants, the senior Euro champion and world silver medallist. "The way he is progressing I would say he is the best paddler in the world at the moment."
Sawers, who has a twin brother, Nick (not a canoeist), is in the gym and out running most days as well as on the water. This year brings the senior world championships in Duisberg and the Under-23 championships in Belgrade - where her other brother, John, will also be competing.
Out on the water, watched by two men and a duck, this can be a lonely sport, but Sawers knows that to achieve her Olympic goal she must continue to paddle her own canoe. But at least she has "big sister" Anna to inspire her.
MENTOR'S MESSAGE: ANNA HEMMINGS:
Welcome to a tougher, more professional world
Louisa is a great all-round athlete, having success in sprint racing but also winning the Junior Marathon World Championship. She has a fantastic opportunity to build on what she has learned, and her experience at junior level should help the transition to the senior circuit.
The Olympic discipline is a different, much tougher world, but if Louisa continues to train with the same level of determination that she has already displayed, she will be a great medal prospect for London 2012.
We have a strong pool of youngsters with fantastic opportunities ahead of them. Having competed for Great Britain for 16 years, I've really noticed that the sport has become so much more professional since the introduction of Lottery funding. Athletes like Louisa can train full-time with professional coaches and have access to essential medical and support services. There is no reason why a handful of youngsters won't win medals in five years' time.
But don't rule out the existing athletes on the team. We have a lot of experience and age isn't a barrier - just look at what Kelly Holmes and Steve Redgrave have achieved. I have every intention of competing on home water too.
This year I am aiming to qualify for the Marathon World Championships again in both K1 and K2. In the K2, Louisa would be my first-choice partner should she also qualify. We have only been in a boat together once but I am confident that we have the ability at least to win a medal.
With five world titles under my belt, I have a lot of experience in marathon racing. I'm sure Louisa can learn a lot from that in terms of preparation and tactics. It will serve as superb experience for her.
Anna Hemmings is a five-time world marathon canoe champion and is the current world record-holderReuse content